Crystal wears her anxiety like an allergy. As she stands at the edge of the Wayzata High School cafeteria, scanning a chattering sea of unfamiliar faces, she can feel pools of heat flaring up her cheeks and down her neck.
She sifts through the North Face jackets and twinkling iPads for a place to squeeze in, hypersensitive to the sideways glances at her purple pixie hair. It's obvious she doesn't belong.
But one table calls to her, a table of asymmetrical haircuts and Doc Martens. A girl seems to beckon with a curious eye. Crystal smiles back nervously. She's found the outcasts of Wayzata.
Halfway through the winter, Crystal has just enrolled after a long hiatus from school. Her hope is that after a decade of turmoil, she will finally graft together enough credits for a diploma.
Her troubles began five years ago, when she was living with her father and stepmother in Lake Jackson, Texas. At age 13, she came home from church one Sunday to find her dad had put a bullet in his head. Her mom couldn't take her; she'd always been a drug addict, Crystal says. So she fell to relatives.
The subsequent years found her bouncing from cousins in Texas to an uncle in Michigan. A stint in South Dakota ended when her middle-aged half-brother showed uncomfortable interest in his teenage sister.
She's been on the run ever since, nesting in group homes and homeless shelters, spending occasional nights with strangers willing to share their cars. Once, she tried to overdose on painkillers.
Last May, Crystal hitched from South Dakota with a van full of friends to the Minneapolis Comic Con, where she met a boy. He was 19, costumed like a popular TV character. She was decked out in steampunk lace and leather. They hung out for the convention's three days. He invited her to live with him.
But he would soon lay down conditions. She had to sleep with him at least once a week. Crystal stayed, she says, because "when he was good, he was really good. He was awesome and nice. And then there were times when he was terrible."
The worst was his habit of tying girls up and cutting them with his spread of Japanese samurai swords.
Help wouldn't come until months later. Crystal and her boyfriend were ambling among the sculpture stalls and the food trucks at the Uptown Art Fair when they ran into his ex-girlfriend and her friends.
Sam, 19, noticed that Crystal mimicked her boyfriend in an uncanny way — they were an antisocial alliance, clingy and equally judgmental of new people. Sam learned Crystal was homeless, suspecting that was the only reason she was with him. She finally pulled Crystal aside. "Hey, you're going to my house," she said. "We're going to get you out of there."
The boyfriend seized Crystal's arm. Sam stepped between them. He grabbed her as well, twisting so hard the girls watched their skin bruise beneath his fingers. Sam threatened to pull a knife on him. He let go and drew his own, threatening to kill himself.
The two girls headed straight for the bus stop.
He does that all the time, Sam assured Crystal, showing her a crosshatch of tiny scars where he used to cut her free from duct tape bindings.[page]
Wayzata High School
Crystal took a wicker bowl chair as her bed in the Plymouth apartment Sam was crashing in. She enrolled in the nearest public high school, Wayzata.
A school social worker took her to get vaccines and antidepressants at a community health center. Once a week, the school gave her a backpack of groceries to take home.
Wayzata is Minnesota's largest high school, 3,500 students strong. It's an easy place to be a loner. Cliques aren't warring tribes, but small, tight-knit groups, with the outcasts scooping up those who don't fit anywhere else.
Few know Crystal's story here. She doesn't think anyone would understand why she always wears the same clothes. But she isn't alone.
Wayzata enrolls an average of 30 homeless students a year. Statewide, the number of homeless youths is estimated at 2,500 on a typical night. To lend a hand, the school partners with Teens Alone, one of the few outfits helping homeless kids in the suburbs.
Sarah Klouda, the Teens Alone caseworker assigned to Crystal, says it's far more difficult to be homeless in Wayzata than in north Minneapolis, where Klouda began her career.
"When I first got to the suburbs, I thought there couldn't be a whole lot of homeless young people. This is going to be easy," Klouda says. "But it's actually a lot harder because the issue is prevalent, but the resources are not here."
Homeless kids here are often out-of-state migrants or local kids evicted by parents on their 18th birthdays. Some are trying to escape hostile moms and dads. Others come from homeless families who've planted themselves in one of the best school districts in the state, seeking something better for their children.
There are no teen shelters in the affluent western burbs, and very few drop-in centers where they can shower and eat and restock on socks. Teens Alone just opened one in downtown Hopkins, but reaching it is difficult for kids navigating the world on foot, walking miles in every direction just to couch-hop. While homeless kids in the cities can at least find warmth on long train rides, those in Wayzata spend sub-zero nights in tents, heated elevators, big-box store parking lots. They cruise under the radar, stitching together shifts at chain restaurants, camping on golf courses, attending the wealthiest high schools while hiding the fact that their nights are spent in parks.
Their dreams are those of ordinary kids. They're trying to provide for themselves and avoid repeating the mistakes of their parents — the generational alcoholism, the violence that abandoned them to the streets. They're suspicious of foster care, where parents taking in strays can be motivated more by cash than care. They would rather build replacement families with their friends.
"These are kids who don't have a place to live, who are trying to make it day by day, and they're still making it to school, they're still trying to find work," Klouda says. "They're still able to pass their classes. I don't have a clue how I would do that."
Before she took in Crystal, Sam became a practiced couch-hopper herself. She grew up in a family of four that subsisted on $15,000 a year from her mom's work as a loan collector and her father's odd jobs. It meant that as soon as she graduated from Armstrong High School, she would have to pitch in for rent and buy her own groceries.
She moved out instead, increasing her hours at Topper's Pizza in Uptown while staying with a friend in Loring Park. She hustled for scholarships to Columbia College in Chicago, but filed away her admission letter after realizing she couldn't afford to live there.
When comic conventions rolled into town, Sam worked security and set up hotels for extra cash. It was an economical way to enjoy the spectrum of geekeries. She's a regular at Anime Detour, Anime Minneapolis, Fusion, Furry Migration, and the Doctor Who Con. She met Dan Harris at an anime meetup. He eventually gave her a place to stay.
Dan is a 27-year-old computer programmer from Virginia, where he ran an informal shelter out of his college apartment. He started by letting friends crash on a patchwork of futons between classes. Then he took in homeless people and began dating a girl who lived in a tent in her parents' backyard.
He moved to Minnesota to develop apps for a German company that makes fasteners. It's a lucrative gig that allowed him to rent a discreet, cookie-cutter apartment in Plymouth and to furnish its garage with a new Corvette, which is not so discreet. When he heard Sam needed a place to live, he offered her his couch.
He later adopted Crystal, who brought her girlfriend along too. The girlfriend was an Anoka dropout who encouraged Crystal to carry on at Wayzata. The four became something close to a family.
They're a hodgepodge of exotic sexualities and obsessive fandoms. With the exception of Crystal's "super gay" girlfriend, the others are open to dating any number of people regardless of sex or gender.
They're also disciples of the Twin Cities' furry community, where people adopt animal personas that are brought to life at costume conventions.
Dan says the majority do it as a form of escapism. "What it can give you and why it's so accepting is because a lot of people who actively participate tend to struggle with a lot of mental issues," he says. "It lets you create a persona and give it what you wish you had, or put it in any kind of environment that you would rather have than your reality."
He thinks the lifestyle appeals to Sam and Crystal for the same reasons. Behind their evenings of carousing, making sushi to music blasting, the shrieking rough-and-tumble play on the couch, is an unabated strain to keep up with their generation and make something of themselves.
After school, Crystal worked part-time at Cub Foods until she came down with a fever one day. Her manager wouldn't let her off without a doctor's note. She didn't have insurance, so she was fired.
Her depression deepened. Her school attendance faltered. She began to fail.
"I really wanna finish school, even if it's just getting my GED," Crystal said in January. "I know it'll help me better myself and it'll help me get further in life. And that's why I wanna do it. I wanna do it for me."
A month later, she sat Sam and Dan down and confessed school wasn't working. She didn't have the motivation. She was having panic attacks, curling up in a ball in the closet, under the table. Overwhelmed by a relationship with her girlfriend that was moving too fast, Crystal decided they should break up instead. She began skipping school to visit her friends in nearby towns for days at a time.
Her derailment rippled through the commune. Sam's frustration grew over the looming question of Crystal's plans for the future. Relations between the three became conflicted and muddled. Sam began to insist that Crystal fill out job applications in front of her every night.
"Since 16 she's been on her own, and she hasn't had a lot of real responsibility," Sam says. "We've gotten her a lot better. She's improved on so many things, but she's still never really had that kid part. She never got a chance to grow up, but she also grew up too fast."
Dan agrees. Though he would like to force Crystal to go to school like a true father figure, it's not his place.
"With depression, some days she just doesn't wanna get out of bed, and I get that," he says. "There are just some things kids shouldn't have to deal with when they're supposed to be developing and learning things like math and basic interaction. It makes it hard after that point to go back to school."
It doesn't help that Klouda, Crystal's closest adult advocate, recently quit the already skeletal staff at Teens Alone to work for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Before she left, she divided her suburban kids among the remaining caseworkers, but some clients took the disruption as a cue to go their own way.[page]
Crystal's best friend at Wayzata High, her sponsor in the outcasts clique, has been trying to run away for most of high school.
Jessica, newly 18, doesn't spend much time at home. After school she walks two miles to the Plymouth Panera, where she sits at a table near the window and does homework while waiting for her shift to start.
Jessica casts a hulking silhouette, swaddled in hand-me-down winter gear too large for her tiny frame. She has a certain poise that comes with experience in customer service, and speaks with the deliberation of someone with her mind set on growing up as quickly as possible.
Crystal opened up to her the first day they met while they rode the bus home. They had things in common.
Jessica grew up with a mother who struggled with depression. A car accident damaged a large part of her brain, then she turned to alcohol to medicate the stress of single motherhood. Child Protective Services confiscated Jessica's two older half-siblings before she was born. Her mom blames it on a false accusation of child abuse by vengeful in-laws. Jessica doesn't know what to believe.
During Jessica's early years, "my mom was incredible. She gave me all the resources I could possibly need for my education. I really appreciated what she did for me when I was younger. But it ended up going downhill and it was a sad thing to watch."
That's when her mom started dating again. She suddenly had a reason — and cash — to drink more heavily. She started lashing out.
It started with a lot of yelling and grew to punching and slapping. The last time she struck Jessica, her mother was intoxicated and insisted on driving her 10-year-old brother to a friend's house. Jessica went to the end of the driveway and sat on the car. Mom slapped her across the face.
Jessica became her brother's parent by default, cooking meals, helping him with homework, and coaching him through bullying at school. Eventually, she decided that she had to leave, even if it meant leaving him.
"The thing that finalized moving out was when she justified hitting me," Jessica says. "She would say, 'I didn't hit you very hard' or 'It was for your own good.' She had it completely justified in her mind."
The first time she left home was near the end of her sophomore year. She needed to escape the chaos of home to study for an AP European history exam. A friend took her in. "It ended up being the best two weeks that I'd had in years."
Jessica turned to Teens Alone in hopes of finding a match within their Suburban Host Home program, which assigns kids to volunteer families in lieu of shelters. She's been waiting for months, but no one's responded. Klouda says the program is an ideal alternative to foster care; families only participate out of the goodness of their hearts. There just aren't enough signed up in the suburbs.
Jessica is trying to be patient. She isn't above asking for help from school social workers or foster home agencies because she trusts them. That's where she differs from Crystal, she says.
Crystal's surface-level friendliness gives way to deep reservations about letting anybody get too close, Jessica believes. She tends to dismiss anybody with the tint of privilege, which happens to be a good portion of Wayzata. She backs up and shuts down when Jessica probes into her past.
"I honestly considered her my closest friend at Wayzata for a while," Jessica says. "But then she stopped showing up to school. I'd shown up at her place a few times to ask her what was going on and I'm pretty sure she lied to my face."
Crystal would always say she'd be back on Monday. Then she dropped out.
A week after Klouda quit, Teens Alone said a new caseworker would meet with Jessica. No one ever showed, but she empathizes with the agency.
"I feel like they're understaffed," Jessica says. "Homelessness in the suburbs is a huge, huge undertaking and I don't think they have enough people working on these sorts of things. But they could just make it just a little bit easier for us, get more volunteers so these cases don't just get lost."
Jessica still lives on and off at home, couch-hopping with a network of friends who have all at some point dealt with family instability. She's considering moving to northeast Minneapolis with her aunt, but that will mean a longer bus commute to Wayzata and quitting her job at Panera.
In the meantime, she's stacking up hours at work to pay for engineering classes at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. What she can't afford up front, she'll scrape together through scholarships and loans. Then she'll transfer to a four-year university.
A New Hope
When Crystal vanished from Wayzata High, she didn't tell anyone. She didn't reply to emails from the school social worker, Crystal says, because "whenever I met with her, it was always kind of awkward. It always seemed like contact through obligation, rather than because she cared."
She couldn't bring herself to tell Jessica she'd failed.
Dan plans to move the commune out to New Hope this month, trading in the Plymouth apartment and the sports car for a four-bedroom house with a finished basement studio. With 2,800 square feet, he'll rent out rooms to homeless kids. It will be Crystal's 11th move.
Motion sick and desperate for a bed of her own, Crystal says she's tired of learning the layout of new schools. She decided to get back together with her girlfriend, and now they're splitting rent in the new house. In time, Crystal will get her license, buy a car, and start working toward a GED. Someday, she might apply to cosmetology school.
She tries not to think too far ahead, because she knows how fate changes with the drop of a hat.
"Back when I was 13, I stole, I lied, I let others use me. I had this thought in my head that because life had dealt me such a shit hand so early that it couldn't get any worse," Crystal says. "I know I'm still going to make stupid choices, but I'm learning from them, something I wasn't doing five years ago."
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